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Silk has quite a few downsides. To name only two it’s expensive and hard to wash. But we forgive it because it’s just so beautiful and soft. Silk is an interesting fabric in quite a few ways, and it’s also one of the oldest fabrics that we have.
Legend says that it was found around the 27th century BCE in China when the Empress Leizu suffered the unfortunate mishap of having a silk worm’s cocoon fall into her cup of tea. When she went to remove the uninvited intruder it came away not in one piece, but the heat of the tea meant that the cocoon started to unravel in a long silk strand. Cue a lightbulb of inspiration going on over her head in typical cartoon style. Leizu came up with the idea of twisting this strand with another strand, and this new double strand with another double strand, and so on. The result was silk – a strong and gorgeous fabric.
China was enchanted. Silk was so good people used it as currency and banned lower classes from wearing it. Silk was something to be protected at all costs. Before 300 AD it was a closely guarded Chinese secret. Then the Japanese discovered how to make it. One story says this is thanks to a pair of smuggling monks who hid silkworm eggs and mulberry tree seeds (the food of the silkworm) in their walking sticks. Clever.
The knowledge of how to make silk stayed mainly in Asia until the 11th century when Italy found the knack and starting selling across Europe – but it cost. To try to save money King Louis XI of France started his own silk factories. They were a big success. Until the big silkworm diseases hit. Worms died. Factories closed. The cure was a long time coming. Japanese silk got it’s second wind thanks to the Suez Canal. Then, following the Second World War when Japanese silk supplies had been cut off, we had nylon which was cheaper than silk and easy to make.
Even now when we have lots of silk available from China and India (Japanese isn’t the market leader in silk that it was once) it remains a luxury product. After all, since silk is so hard to wash, it’s mainly kept for special occasions. Because let’s be honest, as nice as it is, who wants to have a mountain of hand washing to do every week?